Birth of a Legend

07 07 weather balloonI did consider trying to find something else to tell you about today, as this is already well-trodden ground, particularly on the internet, but today is the anniversary of the Roswell Incident. On this day in 1947, the crashed wreckage of something was found on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. It was reported to the Sheriff’s office, who notified the military. They came and picked it up and took it away. At first it was reported that a ‘flying disc’ had been recovered, which was a bit mysterious. But the military announced that what had been recovered was a weather balloon. Years of speculation have led many to believe that it was a bit more that that. And it was. In the 1990s, the military admitted that they had been using weather balloons, with surveillance equipment attached. They were trying to find out if the Russians had developed and were testing a nuclear weapon and were hoping to pick up disturbances in the atmosphere that would tell them if that had happened. The equipment included a radar reflector, made from thin metal foil, which was used to track the balloon and the balloon itself would have probably been made from neoprene, a sort of synthetic rubber. It was a very secret project named ‘Project Mogul’. The balloons did detect the first Russian nuclear bomb in 1949, but the project was shelved in 1950. As a secretive method of surveillance, a massive balloon wasn’t really all that successful. A colonel, who had been in charge of the project said: “It was like having an elephant in your back yard and hoping no one would notice it.”

Earliest reports of the wreckage described strips of rubber, tin foil, paper and sticks. A lot of the what-ever-it-was had been fastened together with Scotch tape. Some of the tape had flowers printed on it. The material that was collected from the crash site weighed about 5 lb. There were no large pieces of metal, nothing that indicated it might have had an engine. It was bits of a balloon that had had something fastened to it. No one thought much more about it until around 1978.

Between 1978 and 1990, UFO researches interviewed hundreds of people who claimed to had a connection to the event at Roswell. They also received documents that supposedly contained secret information leaked by insiders. A document known as ‘Majestic 12’ claimed that an alien spaceship had crashed and that alien technology had been recovered that could be exploited. Then someone who claimed to be connected to the case said that there had been alien beings on the ship and promised footage of an interview with one of them. Nothing materialised. Majestic 12 is now widely thought of as a forgery, but it was the beginning of a really good story. People were fascinated by the thought that we could have been visited by beings from another planet and that the whole thing had been hushed up by the government. Books were written on the subject and a wild and unsubstantiated rumour amongst a few people moved into the mainstream consciousness.

07 07 roswellIn version one of the story, ‘The Roswell Incident’ published in 1980, a spaceship was struck by lightening and crashed in the desert, killing the aliens. The whole thing was covered up by the government. Some archaeology students, from an unidentified university, saw the crash site and the bodies. The material recovered was not a balloon but some strange, new, super-strong material. A photograph of the rancher posing with the recovered material had been faked. Witnesses had been hushed up. It was a popular book and others started to come up with their own versions.

By 1991, in a book called ‘UFO crash at Roswell’, a second crash site had been added to the story. The whole area had been crawling with military police trying to keep people away. Shortly after that, the story of three alien bodies being held at the Roswell Army Air Base emerged. It was the start of the ‘alien autopsy’ thread. This was followed up by a purported film of the autopsies. Its maker has since admitted that he faked to footage using rubber models, chicken entrails, sheep’s brains and raspberry jam. The following year, another book was published which claimed there had been two flying saucers and eight aliens, two of whom had survived.

In 1997, a book called ‘The Day After Roswell’ was published by a former army officer, Philip J Corso. He claimed to have seen the alien bodies from Roswell stowed in crates and that later, he was given material from the crash site. His job was to reverse engineer the objects he was given, so that alien technology could be exploited for corporate use. He claimed to have found technology which helped with the development of lasers, fibre optics, bullet-proof vests and microchips. Again, a fascinating story, but it seriously undervalues the work of all the scientists who actually worked very hard, over years and years to develop those things. There was one piece of equipment though, that he claimed he could do nothing with. It was a helmet that he believed the aliens had used to steer the ship telepathically. Recently, our scientists have come up with a way of controlling a computer directly from the brain. One day, it will be brilliant for people who are paralysed. They will be able to control their wheelchairs, switch on the TV, use a computer. And we’ve done that all by ourselves, with no help at all from Philip Corso.

Human beings are clever. I think it’s wrong to underestimate our ingenuity. I don’t think we needed outside help with our technology, any more than I think the ancient Egyptians needed alien advice when they built their pyramids. We are an inventive and curious people and we always have been. We are good at making objects and we are also good at making stories. What we probably have at Roswell, which is most interesting to me, is the birth of a legend.

It makes me think about the two completely separate lives of Roger Bacon, one real and one imagined. It makes me think about the Trojan War. It was fought by the gods and the children of gods and was thought to be just a legend. But now there is some archaeological evidence that it may actually have happened. There must have been years and years of people retelling the story, half remembering things, adding bits to make it more exciting. Conspiracy theories like Roswell are probably just no more than modern myths that fulfil our need for wild stories. We have no exciting pantheon of gods now, no Prometheus to bring us fire. We have aliens who bring us microchips and lasers.

Giant Nap

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Yesterday, I wrote about the Pied Piper legend, a story in which a whole village full of children disappear inside a mountain and are never seen again. Today I have another story about people who vanished into an underground cavern. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. In Germany, June 27th is known as ‘Siebenschläfertag’ (Seven Sleepers Day). The weather on this day is meant to determine the weather for the following seven weeks. On this basis of that, I predict a little bit of sun, not very warm and looks as though it might rain in a bit. So no change there.

Siebenschläfer is also the name for an edible dormouse, which is a pretty sleepy animal. ‘Seven sleeper’ is also a term which had been used across Europe to describe a person who sleeps much longer that is considered necessary. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus slept much longer than either a sleepy human or a hibernating dormouse. They were seven young Christian men who faced persecution from the Emperor Decius. They refused to worship what they saw as false idols and ran away to hide in a cave. In some versions of the story, they were walled up there by the emperor and left to die.

Many years later, their cave was opened again, by a shepherd who was hoping to use it as a shelter for his sheep. Or by a landowner who wanted it for a cattle stall. After he had gone away, the sleepers awoke but thought they had slept only one night. They sent off one of their number to buy bread in the city. Expecting to have to hide from his persecutors, he was surprised to find that the sign of the cross had been placed at the city gate and that there were churches everywhere. When he took out his money to pay for the bread, the baker was also very surprised. The coin he wanted to pay with was so very old that he thought the young man must have found some ancient treasure. It turned out that they had all slept for years and years. In some accounts it is 300 years, in others 208 or 180. The Emperor was now a Christian called Theodosius II and Christianity was now the dominant religion. Everyone was very excited, and crowds of people rushed to visit the cave and its newly woken inhabitants. There was, at that time, a debate about whether the promise of the resurrection could really be true. Here was living proof that God could raise people from the dead. The sleepers emerged from the cave and, after telling their story to the Bishop of Ephesus, they all died immediately whilst praising God. Of course a church was built over the spot, and you can still visit the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers today.

As you’ll gather from the discrepancies, there are many versions of this story and not all of them are Christian. There is a version of it in the Qur’an which is pretty vague about the number of sleepers, perhaps there were seven, but maybe five or three. The men fall asleep as Christian Berbers, but wake in a land that had converted to Islam. They too, convert to the new religion and can then die happy. This story also includes a sleeping dog who guards the cave entrance. In the Islamic version, only Allah knows how long they slept, which is a neat way of side-stepping the discrepancies between the various accounts. The location is not always the same either. Some place the cave in Jordan and there are several contenders in Tunisia. I think my favourite is at Chenini in southern Tunisia. There, if you visit the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, you will find very large tombs which are about four metres long. The legend there tells us that the men continued to grow whilst they slept and awoke as giants.

Wolf Peach

05 10 tomatoesToday I am investigating tomatoes. Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Common sense tells me that it is a fruit, but it really depends on how you define those two things. I also want to look at why people once thought tomatoes were evil, but more of that shortly. Botanically, a fruit is the fertilized ovum of a flower, which contains seeds. While that doesn’t make it sound very appetizing, it certainly describes a tomato. Yet on this day in 1893, the United States Government declared it to be, legally, a vegetable.

Ten years earlier, a law had been passed a law that required an import duty of 10% to be levied on vegetables but not on fruit. Then, in 1886, a family named Nevis imported a whole load of tomatoes from the Caribbean and refused to pay the duty, as a tomato was clearly a fruit. They wound up in the Supreme Court and both sides argued their case strongly. For both, the evidence seems to have partly consisted of calling ‘expert’ witnesses who sold both fruit and vegetables and asking what they thought. But mostly, it was the lawyers simply reading out dictionary definitions of fruit and vegetables. The defendants favoured peas, aubergines, cucumbers, squashes and peppers, while the plaintiff went with potatoes, turnips, parsnips, cauliflower, carrots and beans. For reasons I don’t understand, it took them six years to settle the matter, but eventually the court came down unanimously on the side of ‘vegetable’. They decided this was definitely the case because tomatoes are served with a main meal and not as a dessert. Oddly, the judge was able to refer to an earlier similar case in which someone had tried to argue that beans were seeds. By the same definition; cucumber, peppers and pumpkins are also vegetables. Yet rhubarb is a fruit, despite the fact that it is a stalk.

Tomatoes have not, historically, been a universally popular fruit. Originally, they came from South America. They went down well in the south of Europe but not so much in the north or in some parts of North America. In fact, people thought they were poisonous. One of my many jobs is dinner lady in a primary school and, as I have watched children laboriously pick them out of their bolognaise, I’m pretty sure that belief is still with some of us.

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Many believed that eating tomatoes would cause appendicitis, stomach cancer, brain fever or possibly turn a person’s blood to acid. In 1820, in Salem Massachusetts, a man named Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, was determined to prove to everyone that they would cause no harm, by publicly eating a tomato on the steps of the courthouse. He did this before a shocked audience and against the advice of his doctor. The Colonel’s story is one of those that has so many versions, we can’t know what really happened. Perhaps he ate one tomato, maybe he ate a whole basket full. Perhaps a woman in the crowd screamed and fainted as he took the first bite. Maybe two thousand people turned out to witness his weird public suicide, maybe there were less than that. I’m pretty sure that he wore a tricorne hat whilst he was eating them. It is certainly possible that he was accompanied by a tune from the fireman’s band. They might have struck up a merry tune, but some insist they played a dirge, which would definitely have been funnier.

The main problem people had with the tomato, the thing that made them deeply suspicious, was the fact that the tomato bears a striking resemblance to deadly nightshade which is very poisonous. Everyone knew that witches used deadly nightshade in their flying ointment or to summon up werewolves or something. In fact, the tomato is related to the deadly nightshade, they both belong to the ‘solanum’ family. Then, at the end of the seventeenth century, a man called Joseph Pitton de Tournefort further classified the tomato as ‘Solanum lycopersicum’. The ‘lycopersicum’ part translates as ‘wolf peach’, which didn’t do much for the reputation of the tomato. A secondary problem was that rich people used to eat from plates made from pewter. The acidic nature of the tomatoes used to cause the lead from the pewter to leech out into the food. Lead is certainly not good for you. Poorer people ate from wooden bowls, so they didn’t have that problem. Also, luckily, the Italians invented pizza and bolognaise and they were so good that everyone pretty much overcame their fear of the tomato. Apart perhaps from small children, but they’ll get over it. Don’t eat any other parts of a tomato plant though. Because the rest of it is poisonous…

Drink to the Future

800px-Sileno_(Museo_del_Louvre)Well, today has been difficult. I have spent most of the day researching a person only to find that Wikipedia had lied to me about a date. Never mind, I didn’t really like him anyway. But, by happy chance I’ve also spent part of the day talking with a friend about a character from Greek Myth called Silenus. He was much more fun, so I’m going to tell you about him instead.

Silenus was the foster father, companion and tutor of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. His origins seem to be very old indeed. He has no mother but Gaia, the earth herself, and sprung fully-formed out of the ground. He’s a sort of man of the forest, who is sometimes described as having the ears, tail and perhaps legs of a horse. You can often see him in paintings of Dionysus and his companions. The one thing you need to know about Silenus, is that he is always drunk. So drunk that he can’t really walk very well. He will be the one sitting on a donkey, falling off a donkey, being supported on a donkey by some satyrs or generally being held up by someone.

02 19 silenus di cosimoRemarkably, he is also very wise. When intoxicated, which as I mentioned is all the time, he possesses special knowledge and the power of prophecy. His favourite things are wine, music and sleep. If you can catch him sleeping and surround him with flowers or chains, he would be under your spell and he might sing for you, tell you a story or foretell your future. That is probably how he came to be at the court of King Midas. Either Midas tempted him with a fountain full of wine, so that he drank it and went to sleep, or some shepherds found him, put a crown of flowers on him and brought him to the king.

For five days, Silenus entertained the king and his court with stories. He told them about a vast continent, far beyond the known world that was peopled by happy and long lived giants, who, by the way, enjoyed an excellent legal system. Once, ten million of them had sailed to our lands but they thought it wasn’t very nice, so they went back again. He told them of a giant whirlpool that no traveller may pass and of two streams nearby. There were fruit trees on the banks of the streams. By one stream, the fruit made people weep and pine away, but eat the fruit on the bank of the other and your youth would be renewed. In fact, you would start living your life backwards, getting younger and younger, until you finally disappeared. Silenus wasn’t keen to tell Midas his fortune though. After being plagued about it for quite some time he said: “… why do you compel me to tell you those things of which it is better you should remain ignorant? For he lives with the least worry who knows not his misfortune…” he went on to say he thought it was better for humans not to be born at all. Actually, we all know what was going to happen to Midas. When Dionysus caught up with his friend, he was so grateful to the king for looking after Silenus, that he offered Midas any gift he would like. Midas chose the gold thing. It did not go well.

Euripides, a playwright from the fifth century BC, wrote a play called ‘Cyclops’ which is a sort of burlesque on Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus arrives on the island of the Cyclops, Silenus and his satyrs are already there, captives of the giant. The story is basically the same but a lot more chaotic. There is a bit where the Cyclops is so drunk that he takes Silenus off to his cave because he thinks he is a beautiful young boy. Silenus also claimed that he helped out at a battle between the gods and a race of giants who lived on the earth long ago. He slew the giant Enceladus and frightened the rest of the giants away with his braying donkey. Cyclops is the only surviving Greek play that is neither a comedy or a tragedy, but a satyr. As far as I can tell it’s almost exactly like a tragedy, except with a bunch of hairy satyrs in the chorus making it silly and rude.

Christmas Trolls

12 12 john bauer 1914In the UK, we only have one Santa Claus, who brings gifts to good children on December 25th, but in Iceland there are thirteen Christmas Trolls called the Yule Lads. Today, children in Iceland can expect a visit from the first of the Yule Lads. They will have left their shoes on the windowsill before going to bed. In the morning, if they were good yesterday, they will find sweets or a small gift. If they were bad, they will find a rotten potato.

A different Yule Lad will arrive in your town or village every day up until Christmas Eve. All thirteen of them will be around on Christmas day. Then, on Boxing day, they will begin to leave, one each day, in order of their arrival. The last leaves on January 6th, which is the traditional date of Epiphany. The motives of the Yule Lads have not always been good. Traditionally they were mischief-making trolls who were there to steal things from you, or perhaps for something even worse. But, in more recent times, they have become more benevolent and taken on some of the characteristics of Santa Claus. This does not stop children from being rather afraid of them though. Having lots of trolls hanging around your house for weeks at a time is never a good thing.

12 12 hungry troll theodor kittelsenOn December 12th, you can expect a visit from Stekkjarstaur, whose name is translated as Sheep Cote Clod. This is bad news if you keep sheep because he will hang around trying to steal the milk from their udders. Luckily, he has difficulty doing this because he had stiff legs and can’t bend down very well. On subsequent days, you can expect visits from trolls who will steal milk from the dairy, scrape out all your pans, lick all your spoons, steal your leftovers and take the pot of food that you have hidden under your bed for later. The seventh visitor will be Door Slammer, who obviously likes to loudly slam all your doors, especially at night. After that you will find that you have been visited by a troll who has eaten all your skyr, which is a bit like yoghurt and very precious indeed. Then you need to look out for the Sausage Swiper. He will sit in your rafters and try to steal the smoked sausages that you have hanging there. Worryingly, your tenth unwelcome guest will be the Window Peeper. Not only will he look through your windows looking for something to steal, he might want to watch you while you get undressed for bed too. Perhaps the weirdest of the thirteen though, appears on the eleventh night. He has an enormous nose and his name is Doorway Sniffer. Next comes Meat Hook. He has a pretty scary name, but what he does is sit in your chimney and reach down with his hook to steal the meat that you are smoking there. If you are lucky, his hook will not be long enough. The final visitor is Kertasníkir, Candle Stealer. As there was once a time when candles were the only available light in the dark winter, they were extremely important. For a child to lose their candle to Kertasníkir was a terrible thing. I don’t think trolls need light particularly, but those candles would have been made of tallow, which is animal fat. So he probably wants to eat them.

These thirteen visitors, their names and characteristics were fixed by a poem called ‘Jólasveinarnir’, which was published in 1932 by a poet called Jóhannes úr Kötlum. It is probably as well known in Iceland as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ is here. The trolls are the sons of the mythical giantess Grýla. She has an extremely long history and is mentioned in Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, which dates from the thirteenth century. As I explained back in September, Snorri’s Prose Edda is a companion book to the Poetic Edda, which is full of pre-christian beliefs, so she is doubtless much older than that. Grýla is, in legend, an extremely unpleasant figure. Like Santa, she is keeping an eye on children all year to see if they are good or not. But she doesn’t want to bring them a present. If children are bad or rude or lazy, she will come down from her mountain home, carry them off, stew them up and eat them. She only wants to eat bad children, because they taste the best.

In the thirteenth century she was described as having fifteen tails. Four hundred years later, she had a hundred bags tied to each tail, with each bag containing twenty naughty children for her pot. It seems there was no short supply of naughty children in the seventeenth century. In those days, both Grýla and her marauding sons were out for blood. Children were terrified and, by 1746, things had got so out of hand that a public decree was issued forbidding parents to scare their children with any more stories of Grýla and her sons. But in the nineteenth century, along with so much else, they received a bit of a Victorian style makeover and became less threatening.

12 12 scary cat theodor kittelsenGrýla and the Yule Lads do not live alone in the mountains. Grýla has a husband called Leppalúði, who seems to be basically just a bit lazy and stupid. He is her third husband, she ate the other two. They also have a cat. As you might expect, the cat is also not very nice. You may spot the Yule Cat lurking about on December 24th. It is looking for people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. If it finds someone, it will eat them. The threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat was extremely useful to farmers who were trying to get their workers to finish processing that year’s wool before Christmas Day.

As I said earlier, in 1932, the number of Yule Lads was fixed at thirteen, but originally there were many more of them to worry about. Grýla may have had up to eighty children. Of the ones that didn’t make the cut are Lampshadow, who would put out all your lights, Smoke Gulper, who would sit on your roof and gulp the smoke from the chimney and one called Litlipungur, whose name translates as ‘small balls’ and I’ve no idea what he did. There were also two sisters called Flotsokka and Flotnös who inexplicably liked to try to put a piece of fat on a half knitted sock or put a piece of fat up her nose. There was a troll called Flórsleikir, whose name means ‘dung channel licker’, but luckily, they mean the one in the cowshed. Most frightening of all though is Lungnaslettir which means ‘lung splatter’ he would carry his lungs in front of his chest and use them to beat children with. Sleep well everyone. x

The Tiny Oozing Bishop of Myra

12 06 saint nicholasToday is the feast day of Saint Nicholas who was made Bishop of Myra, then in Greece, now in Turkey, in 317 AD. Since then he’s had a few name changes and a bit of a makeover. From being ‘Saint Nikolaos’, he became, in the Netherlands, ‘Sinterklaas’ and from there ‘Santa Claus’.

The most famous story connected to his life is about a time he helped out a poor man with three daughters. The man didn’t have enough money to provide a dowry for them and they risked remaining unmarried. That might not sound so bad, but in those days it meant either you became a prostitute, or everyone just thought you were one. Nicholas didn’t want to embarrass the man by helping him publicly, so on each night before one of his daughters came of age, he sneaked up to the house at night and threw a purse of gold, or in some stories, a golden ball, through their open window. There is a version in which, on the last night, the father tried to catch him, but Nicholas climbed on the roof and threw his gift down the chimney instead. Here, it landed in a stocking that was drying by the fire. Saint Nicholas is, among other things, the patron saint of pawnbrokers and they took his three golden balls as their symbol.

12 06 knecht ruprechtIn another tale, there was a terrible famine in Myra. An evil butcher lured three children into his home, killed them, chopped them up and put their bodies in a barrel with some salt. He intended to sell their remains as ham. But luckily, Saint Nicholas found out about it and brought the children back to life and they were returned to their homes. This is how he gained his reputation as a protector of children. In France, the story goes that the evil butcher had to follow the saint in penance and he became Père Fouettard who doles out lumps of coal or beatings to children who have been naughty. In Germany, his servant is called Knecht Rupecht, a figure clad in brown or black who will check that children know how to say their prayers. If not, he will beat them or shake a bag of ashes at them. In Austria, of course, they have Krampus.

In the Netherlands, unlike our North Pole dwelling, sleigh-driving Father Christmas, Sinterklaas arrives in mid-November, on a steamboat, from Spain. He rides a grey horse over the roof tops and drops presents down the chimneys of good children, for them to find on his feast day. Some think Sinterklaas may have pre-Christian origins in the god Odin, who also rode through the sky on a grey horse. But Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, had eight legs. Odin also gave us the gift of runes and had a couple of ravens who flew out into the world, sat on roofs listening at chimneys and returned to tell him what was going on.

12 06 sinterklaasThis brings us to Sinterklaas’s servant, or servants, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) who listens at chimneys to find out if children have been good or bad. The Zwarte Pieten sport colourful seventeenth century costumes, complete with lace collar and, controversially, blacked faces. They carry a sack with candy for the good children and a birch rod for the naughty ones. If you’ve been really bad, they might put you in the sack and take you back to Spain. I first heard about this story from David Sedaris in his story ‘Six to Eight Black Men‘.

In medieval times the feast of Saint Nicholas became, not just an occasion for giving gifts to children, but also an opportunity to help those less fortunate by, like the saint himself, leaving gifts of money for the poor. Nuns would place baskets containing food and clothes on the doorsteps of those in need. Saint Nicholas’s three golden balls turn up again too, in the form of oranges, a traditional Christmas gift which, as they would have come from Spain, might explain the belief in his Spanish origins. Or it might be because most of his remains were removed to Bari in 1087. While Bari is clearly in Southern Italy, it was once a part of Spain. Europe is a strange and ever-changing place. When the bones of Saint Nicholas were at Myra, they exuded a clear liquid which smelled like rosewater and is referred to as myrrh or mannah. When they were removed to Bari they fortunately continued to ooze the healing liquid. A flask of manna is still taken every year from the bones of the saint. In 2005, forensic scientists were able to measure the bones of Saint Nicholas and make a reconstruction. He was revealed to be around five feet high with a broken nose.

Grüß vom Krampus

12 05 visit from krampusDecember 5th is Krampusnacht. In parts of Europe, December 6th is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, otherwise known as Father Christmas. In Alpine countries, the night of December 5th is dedicated to his very scary companion, Krampus, whose name means ‘claw’. He is the anti-Santa. While Saint Nicholas rewards good children with presents, Krampus will visit the children who have been bad. He will either drown them, eat them or perhaps drag them off to Hell.

He’s a frightening figure, usually covered with black or brown hair. He has cloven hooves, a forked tongue and the horns of a goat. He often carries a a bundle of birch twigs to swat the children with and either a sack or a washtub strapped to his back to put naughty children in and carry them away. He also wears chains which sometimes have bells of differing sizes attached to them. The abduction of children part of the tradition may be a folk memory of a time when Moorish pirates arrived in Northern Europe, as far north as Iceland, stole children and sold them into slavery. Krampus shares his reputation as a punisher of naughty children with other companions of Saint Nicholas found elsewhere in Europe such as Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany or Père Fouettard in France.

12 05 the sorcererIt’s pretty obvious that he is some sort of demonic figure and his chains may represent the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church. His origins are really unknown and he probably represents a Pagan god dating back to pre-Christian times who has been assimilated into the Christian Devil. Gods with horns were pretty important to our ancestors. Go back to 200BC – 300BC and you’ll find Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god. Go back a little further, to around 500BC and you’ll find the first mentions of the Greek god Pan. There is even a cave painting found in France which shows a human figure with horns. It dates back to around 13,000BC. Horned figures have been with us for a very long time and they’re probably not going away any time soon.

The Austrian government tried to ban Krampus in 1934 and in the 1950s they distributed pamphlets titled ‘Krampus is an Evil Man’. Since the end of the twentieth century Krampus has been regaining popularity. Perhaps people are tired of our modern Christmas with its rampant consumerism and are looking for something a bit different. Something a bit more wild and dangerous.

12 05 gruss vom krampusIn some parts of Europe, people have exchanged Krampus greetings cards since the 1800s. Sometimes they picture him looming over bad children and sometimes the images have sexual overtones and show him running after young women. He often has one human foot and one cloven hoof. He might be celebrated with ‘Krampuslauf’ which is a run of celebrants dressed as Krampus which is often fuelled by alcohol. Don’t think that this is a ‘men only’ event though. Krampus has a female counterpart. 12 05 perchtaThere is an Alpine goddess called Perchta who might turn up sometime over the Christmas period to check we have all done enough weaving and spinning. If we have, she will leave a silver coin in our shoe. If we haven’t, she will slit open our bellies, rip out our guts and replace them with straw and pebbles. Which seems a bit harsh.

There are other European traditions which link Christmas celebrations with a horned animal. In Scandinavia, they have a ‘Yule Goat’ and Father Christmas is sometimes pictured riding a goat. The Yule Goat was a spirit that would 12 05 santa on a yule goatarrive in your home to check that you were making the correct preparations for the festival of Yule. It used to be a popular Christmas prank to fashion a crudely shaped goat and secretly place it somewhere in your friends house. Once they found it, they would have to pass it on in the same manner. If you’ve any doubt that Santa still has these associations, take a look at his reindeer. Also Father Christmas is Saint Nick, the devil is Old Nick. There’s got to be something there right? Have we all been good this year? I hope so.

12 05 yule goat

Hidden In Runes

09 23 snorri sturlusonA couple of days ago, I wrote about the Hobbit and mentioned that Norse mythology was a huge source of inspiration for Tolkien. Today I am celebrating the life of the author of one of those sources: Snorri Sturluson. He died on this day in 1241. Actually, he was killed in a cellar on the orders of a king who he had once written a fine poem about, but, as that’s clearly not brilliant, I’ll leave that aside.

In the 1220s Snorri wrote a book about Icelandic myths called the Prose Edda. It was intended to explain the meaning of ancient Icelandic tales about their Pagan gods. These tales can be found in an earlier book by another author, which is referred to as the Poetic Edda. The stories of the Poetic Edda are full of metaphors and allusions that we couldn’t hope to understand without Snorri’s explanations. At the time that he wrote his book, Christianity had really taken over as the major religion in his country and people were beginning to forget about the old stories and what they meant. Every line of verse, every name was full of meaning and Snorri didn’t want them to be lost forever.

The preachers of the new Christian religion were not interested in the old ways. More than that, they wanted them gone forever. Any books found about the old religion were considered threatening to the doctrines of the church and were burned, any of it’s followers would be burned too. You’d think that the Christians could have learned something about what it was like to be persecuted for you beliefs and been a bit nicer about it. Sadly though, it seems to be a thing that the more fanatical believers of an evangelising religion never learn. The Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda are the only survivors from this period of Icelandic history . The Poetic Edda survived as a single copy, referred to as the Codex Regius, which came to light in 1643. It’s contents had been considered so inflammatory that it was hidden away for around 400 years before anyone dared show it to a member of the clergy. Snorri’s Prose Edda survived for a different reason. He presented it as a historical work rather than a fictional one. He began with a prologue explaining that belief in the Old Gods was rooted in ancestor worship. He said that the Norse Gods had originally been human. That they were Trojan warriors who had left Troy to settle in northern Europe where they were revered because of their superior culture. That remembrance ceremonies at their burial sites had eventually become cults and the warriors had then become remembered as gods. The Christians were fine with the stories if they were looked at from this point of view. They could handle pre-Christian history, just not pre-Christian religion.

Snorri’s book is therefore a tool to help people study and understand the legends. Or, as he says: “ I wrote this book so that young students of poetry might understand that which is hidden in runes.” He wanted to keep his country’s poetic tradition alive and in doing so has given a great gift to later generations. Without his work the meanings of the stories in the Poetic Edda would be lost to us.

09 23 mead of inspirationMany legends of the Norse gods are found only in these two works. We found a great story about how Odin managed to acquire the Mead of Inspiration from some giants. The mead was made by dwarves from the blood of a very wise, half Trojan god called Kvasir which they mixed with honey. To get it, Odin had to transform himself into a snake, back into a god, spend three nights of passion with a lady giant, drink the wine, then transform himself into an eagle and fly away. He then vomited up the wine into some cups that the other gods had waiting for him. But some of the mead spilled out and it is from the spilled mead that poets gain their inspiration. That’s a pretty wild story. I’ve had an interesting day learning a bit about the Eddas, this morning all I knew about Icelandic Sagas came from this Monty Python sketch